Hello! Eric here! In Chicago we’re experiencing some serious April showers, so what better time than now to cozy up to a toasty blog post. If you’ve also been caught in the rain, settle down next to our creative hearth and have a moment to dry off. Today I’ll be discussing the entire visual and narrative journey of Orion’s Forge.
In the beginning, there were magnets. Tom had a quick and fun prototype he aptly named, “Magneballs” which consisted of orange (repel) and blue (attract) spheres that the player would use to guide smaller metal spheres from their spawn point, into a square goal. This simple core mechanic was the beginning of Orion’s Forge and it stayed that way till the end. What did change dramatically however, were the skins and stories we applied to the game.
After Color Sheep, we knew how important it was to add character(s) and personality to our game and the little metal balls didn’t really hit that target. Unfortunately, drawing smiley faces on all of them didn’t solve the problem, nor was this the best we could do. Right away the idea of moving towers around resonated with all of us because it was a good distance away from spheres and it had a powerful, magical, and mysterious flair to it that we liked.
In the final game, I admit that the towers easily come across as small chess-like pieces, but I tried to rectify that with the game’s trailer and hopefully the goal tower and the simple hills and clouds. In the past, we wanted the player to know they were in control of large towers and we even discussed the idea that moving them around could effect the terrain, but that was just a tangent. Really, we needed to see what type of tower would fit best first.
As I wanted to make use of some of my rusty skills in 3D I learned a bit of Blender and thankfully made it through modeling all the towers… but not without a lot of growing pains and doing things super inefficiently. If only I had the high level 3D wizardry of Ragtag Studio’s Matt Carter, who helped me out whenever I wasn’t too shy to ask questions. That wasn’t often but some how I managed to complete the modeling work.
In college I learned Maya and was proficient enough to make even human character models (never anything hyper real though, always cartoony), but it had been a very long time since I used any 3D and it felt like I was at square one. I fear that I’ve already forgotten the small amount of Blender that I gained just for Orion’s Forge, but who knows, maybe a future project will send me back into the polygon world. I do love it and I hope I can spend more time improving.
The idea of a star arrived when I placed a crystal at the top of the goal tower. Really I just wanted to unify the architecture and have a crystal at the top just like the red and blue ones, but it needed to have a different shape. I imagined how this star-like crystal could shoot up into the sky and from there we stuck with the concept of launching stars and making constellations, but there was still no reason for any of it in terms of a game narrative.
The team and I spent a lot of time hashing out different purposes for why you were launching stars. In one idea, you were awakening the long trapped souls of deceased people and setting them free to be immortalized in the sky. We discussed how the people who had passed away could be a group of warring nations, or maybe they were a collection of scientists and workers that sacrificed their lives to finish a technology that would show the way to utopia through the stars.
Unlike Color Sheep, we started with a serious story and we liked the idea of a somber atmosphere to provide diversity in our productions, but the premise was just creepy when you got down to it. I imagined every star launched being another person that you’d get to learn about who contributed to the history of the technology, but we didn’t think players would be interested in playing a fictional memorial in their spare time (toilet and train time as Tom would put it). Perhaps this idea could work on a console or PC, with the right crowd, but we weren’t sure the mobile market would appreciate this.
In these story threads, you would play as a lone young adventurer that would be unlocking the mysteries of the towers. Sticking to that idea, along with stars and constellations we eventually arrived at “Stark”.
Due to the plain and grey look of the world save for the pop of red, blue, and yellow here and there, the word “stark” described the landscape perfectly and we also liked how “star” was in it. Cheesy, but with our first game having the name “Color Sheep” we could only go up from there. Stark was a planet inhabited by a collection of aliens from all over the galaxy that worked in the mines because the land was rich in minerals (but not much else).
The Starkians were poor in comparison to traders that would travel the galaxy doing all the selling on the Starkians behalf, but the traders would keep a lot of the profit for themselves. Unfortunately, Starkians had a hard time finding work in other fields and supporting themselves on other planets so they lived on, perpetually stuck in the ruts of their planet. To make matters worse, surrounding the town were large towers topped by dormant crystals which the Elder said the people should avoid. The people obeyed, staying tightly within their community borders and thus they never ventured out. Though the miners were actually strong warriors due to the monsters they fought regularly deep in the mines, their hearts trembled with fear at the sight of the brooding towers.
Enter the ever curious and rebellious whippersnapper Pictor (Tom found the name which is a constellation meaning, “artist eisle”… that’ll do). Pictor has a necklace he found which allows him to activate the towers. Once activated, he begins to receive visions every time he solves a tower puzzle. Though the Elder and townspeople meet Pictor with opposition at every turn, he doesn’t give up on uncovering the secrets of the towers and bringing hope back to Stark.
The team worked on the narrative side of Stark for a good week or so. Tom dove head first into scripting the story after the three of us hashed out the plot points, and we all collaborated together in revising the script whenever Tom would have a new version of it. Simultaneously, Ben worked on the system for displaying the cutscenes and visions while I iterated on the design of Pictor and made rough storyboards.
There were a lot of details in this story including a past tragedy in the town, a race of Ancients, and a deeper insight into what these crystals and towers were. However, you can ask us about it over a beer if you meet with us some time. The progression of this narrative in the game would be that every puzzle the player solved would lead them to another vision from the towers, and every constellation completed would further Pictor’s quest for hope.
Kudos to you if you bothered to read my chicken scratch! If not, enjoy the pictures!
The problem with Stark was that the story and the gameplay didn’t really meld. We felt strongly that no one would be able to follow the twists and turns of this semi-complex story with the sparse amount of text we had to work with (we were keen on not forcing people to read a full on novel) and the small play sessions this game was built around. By the time a player came back to the game, they may have forgotten the previous plot points. None of us at Trinket Studios are dedicated writers which compounded these challenges. Our attempts at cryptic text during the visions didn’t convey the mystery of the Ancients as we’d like. Furthermore, Pictor never really felt united with the puzzles. Below I present to you a fast display of all the crudely drawn stand in artwork I made for the visions. It’s some really rough stuff.
I can honestly say that when we realized the game and the narrative of Stark wasn’t working, we didn’t spend much time wallowing. We gave ourselves the proper time to address the issues and we got to brainstorming new solutions right away. I’m really proud of the team for how quickly we turned things around. It was during a late night chat that the idea of fables arose. Since a long over-arching story didn’t work, perhaps small tales would. From there we made the connection from our starry themed game to making alien based fables. It was a sweet match!
We did regress at one point when we felt that even the fables needed a secondary larger story to encompass them. We discussed how our young hero was learning these fables so that he could one day use his newly focused moral compass to save his imprisoned father, but that washed away when we realized how silly we were being in almost repeating our past mistake.
We needed to keep all the stories short and snappy, and stop worrying about a longer narrative.
Eventually Orion came into view, a friendly old starsmith that would simply act as the host for the game and be the storyteller of the fables. He effectively conveyed the moral at each tale’s end and made the necessary transition from one story to the next. Though his name is “Orion”, he is not the hunter in Greek mythology.
Unfortunately, we were never able to integrate him or any character into the actual puzzle space, but we hoped that people would still enjoy the premise and allow each line of a fable to motivate them to continue onward. Though he doesn’t have the depth of history Pictor has, oddly enough Orion’s design came to me very quickly.
Orion needed to be young enough to glow with an attractive lively energy but be old enough to have a respectable wise sage look. He would be human in appearance but obviously have magnificent star forming powers like a mythological being. Yet, he needed to be personable, so his garb should be simple like an ancient scholar with just a little flair added in the stars.
With this new whimsical world, the name of “Stark” was abandoned and I set to livening up the game with more upbeat music and a more ornate ground for the puzzle space. The grey tones stuck as we really liked how they made the glowing elements of our game pop, and it gave the game an ethereal atmosphere, but otherwise the entire tone of the game became more positive.
Even writing the fables was an enjoyable experience, in comparison to the grueling task of learning how to write a space epic in Stark. Ben, Tom, and I, each wrote three to four of our own fables and then we simply selected the ones we felt would be best for our game. We made sure an entire fable could fit on a small phone’s screen and by adding one line at a time while showing the previous lines as the player progressed, we felt this could solve the problem of people forgetting the stories. When we were satisfied with the writing, I got to working on the illustrations.
The square shape of the fable illustrations stemmed from the Stark days, but it was also a nice constraint so that I could get all these illustrations done in a week. Below are two examples of my painting process in Photoshop. I used Photoshops default brushes to paint these and just tried to go as fast as possible. There were so many frames to do! During this phase of the project, I was greatly inspired by Samurai Jack which continually made my head explode with it’s incredible art direction. I didn’t understand why there weren’t more games of that appearance so I shamelessly went under the influence of the show’s style while also allowing for my own style to mix in naturally without thinking too hard about it. I just had fun with it!
In the end, Tom, Ben, and I are very happy with the look, sound, and feel of Orion’s Forge, a game which in total only took about 9 weeks to make. We’re especially proud of the alien fables and we hope you’ve enjoyed them too. It has been quite an honor to receive such a kind response to the game so far from the press and the public, though I hope more people will give it a try!
If you made it to the end of this article, you’re quite a reader! Thank you for spending some time to allow me to share the back story and art development process of our little puzzle game. Thanks for tuning in and I look forward to chatting again when I’ve got more art to share, hopefully from a new project! Cheers!